Creating Strategic Partnerships for Holistic Student Support in Community and TVET colleges in the US: Lessons for further and higher education in South Africa

Dr Loyiso Maciko

Given the socio-economic challenges faced by the majority of students, both in the US and in South Africa, it is more important than ever before, for call further and higher education institutions to provide holistic student support to address the socio- economic and academic barriers experienced my many students. By partnering with organizations that seek to address similar issues, institutions can expand their reach and enhance their impact. This article details processes which are intended to help college and university leaders and educational practitioners to develop and implement a plan for strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial. 

The first step is to assess the needs of students across various aspects of their lives, such as academic, social, employment, economic, technology, transportation, mental health and medical and family. This can be done through various techniques such as surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. This will serve as a starting point for creating a plan to address these needs. This also implies that no decision, at any level should be made without considering the impact on the student. This assessment should be comprehensive and should include feedback from students, faculty, and staff.   

Dr Lisandra De Jesus, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at the College of Southern Nevada, emphasized the importance of conducting a student needs analysis, highlighting that this helps institutions to understand what their students need. It also assists the college to assess what kind of support is needed and whether the college has the capacity, to offer the type of support that may be needed. However, for Dr De Jesus, the requirement that colleges adapt to and develop the necessary interventions to support students is non-negotiable. She cautioned that without doing so, colleges ran the risk of becoming obsolete. 

The goal is to promote independence, economic stability, and successful completion of academic programmes. The next step, therefore involves identifying what systems and resources need to be put into place to meet the identified needs. Structures that serve to reduce the burden on students and help them concentrate on their academic and career goals need to be put in place. If the cost of rent and food are present barriers to academic success and opportunity, these barriers need to be removed. This may require colleges and universities to think differently about how to use their existing resources and may require them to realign budgets to meet student needs and generally to think about doing things differently, even if the size of the support budget remains the same.    

Early Alert Systems need to be in place. Colleges are urged to use technology innovatively to promote efficient scheduling of appointments or referrals for mental health needs or housing. Clear communication strategies are also important, students must know how and where to access resources and services, colleges and universities need to consider ways in which they can simplify information and access to services.  

Step three involves assessing existing partnerships and identifying potential partners to address students’ needs that require additional resources. Colleges/universities should start by assessing the ‘partnership landscape’. First, review existing education, community organization, business, and industry partnerships to see if they can provide solutions for student’s needs.  If they can’t or if the college/ university does not have many existing partnerships, the next step is to undertake an environmental scan and to compile a list of potential resources and partners in the surrounding community.  

To assess the suitability of potential partners, colleges/universities need to undertake a SWOT analysis.  The purpose is to identify internal strengths and weaknesses that could affect the success of the partnership, as well as external opportunities and threats. This step will ensure that any partnerships sought are mutually beneficial and that all parties can leverage each other's strengths in addressing student needs. 

Paula Nachtrieb, the Executive Director of Workforce Operations at Illinois Central College, highlighted the importance of having a supportive and a knowledgeable leadership team to facilitate and build community partnerships. A key role of this team is to secure buy-in and a shared vision, purpose, goals, and principles, among all partners. Identification of a partnership team is also important, as is ensuring buy-in throughout the college or higher education institution. Effective partnerships must be flexible, with students at the center, and partners should identify shared visions and be aware of institutional differences. Reciprocity is germane to building mutually beneficial relationships, a written agreement should therefore be prepared to ensure a clear understanding of the partnership.  

A photo from the ATD DREAM Studio. Source: ATD 

Measuring success and planning for continuous improvement is a key step in the process of establishing and growing holistic student support initiatives and embedding them in the college institutional culture. Pursuant of this aim, planning, regular assessment, data collection, and making changes based on learnings from the student success support process is important. The focus needs to be on both formative (process) and summative (outcome) measures to determine whether the programme is addressing the identified student needs. Process/formative data to be collected may include, student satisfaction, frequency of service use, responses to surveys, while, outcomes/summative data is likely to include data on retention/persistence, workforce readiness skill attainment. To ensure equity, data should be disaggregated by different demographic information.  

Over and above the need for collecting and using data to inform decision making, Teddi Lewis-Hotopp, Director Student Academic Success at Columbus State Community College, emphasized the importance of ongoing communication with students to understand their changing needs. Establishing what students need at the beginning of their academic journey is not sufficient. Students’ needs may change as they progress on their academic and career paths, it is therefore crucial to continue engaging with students and gathering feedback regularly to ensure that support interventions remain effective and relevant. 

Additionally, Dr Lisandra De Jesus, also emphasized the importance of institutional commitment to allow for the growth and success of new interventions and redesigns. She advised against being too quick to abandon an intervention and suggests allowing a couple of years to figure out, ‘how the moving parts are working together’. 

The presentations from the colleges at the Achieving the Dream conference raise important questions stimulating discussion on how South African higher education institutions can strengthen holistic student support initiatives in their sector by seeking out and establishing strong partnerships with a range of organisations in the surrounding community.  By collaborating with a number of stakeholders, institutions can leverage their resources and achieve greater impact.